What is Easy and What is Right

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

“The time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy”
~ Albus Dumbledore

I have been grappling with some moral issues as of late. This is not a new path for me, as I historically have chosen the least tread path in life. However, like all moral dilemmas, the issues tangle and weave themselves around all the other decisions you have made in the whole of your life, creating ever increasingly complex nuances and variations.

It is now time to tell a story that I have not fully told until now. Friends have heard bits and pieces, mostly as it was happening, but I have resisted writing down the whole of my experience. I think that it has taken me the past two years to fully process what I saw versus what I knew and my place in the drama that unfolded.

Righteousness is a concept that has always held a great deal of appeal to me. I don’t like bullies, and I have a fundamental faith that what goes around truly does come around. More than not liking bullies, I tended to be the person who DID something about the bully. My 8th grade basketball career was cut tragically short by this tendency. Apparently, the coach did not enjoy my pointing out her bullying techniques to the Administration, and teammates, and Superintendent.

In 11th grade, I was called into the principal’s office to discuss a “letter to the editor” that I had written to our local paper, criticizing the decision to place armed police in our rural Vermont school. A few months later, I was called in to discuss my statement to Elizabeth Dole who was speaking to our school assembly during one of her husbands’ runs for office. I simply pointed out that almost no one in the audience was old enough to vote, why was she here speaking to us?
I can’t imagine that they were sad to see me trot off to college.

In 2004, I received a jury duty letter. I was to appear at the appointed date and time and possibly be selected for jury duty. I had never been called before and was actually a little excited at the prospect of participating in the judicial system. Chances were slim, though, as I was one of a pool of about 500 people.

I arrived and sat down in the courtroom. I glanced around at my potential fellow jurors. We had some very special individuals in the crowd. The judge stood up and announced that this was a little different from other times we may have been called for jury duty. This was a first-degree murder trial. We were to each be individually interviewed by both the defendant and prosecutor. I signed up for the first round of interviews, as I needed to get back to work and didn’t want to have to take another day off.

I can only imagine what I looked like to both sides. I was nervous. I was excited. There were a number of odd questions. What TV shows did I watch? What types of books did I read? Where did I go to school? What did I do in my job? These questions morphed into more direct questions. Would I be upset by photos of a graphic and bloody nature? Would testimony regarding drug use be offensive to me?

Finally, would I be able to stand up to 11 other jurors in the event I felt that the defendant was either guilt or innocent? I didn’t hesitate. Yes, of course. The defense asked me to look at the defendant and repeat these words “I will do everything in my power to insure that you have a fair trail”. I did so. I smiled at the accused murderer as I repeated these words. “Thank you”, he mouthed to me.

The case itself was fairly mundane. Cocaine deal to Seller. Cocaine deal goes bad. Dealer wants his money. He is connected with some very bad dudes, who also want their money. Buyer doesn’t want to pay the dealer back, so buyer comes up with a scheme to kill the dealer and keep the coke. However, buyer doesn’t do the work himself, he sends his nephew out to take care of it. Nephew is in his early 20’s and doesn’t speak Spanish, so he brings an old neighborhood friend (whose mother is housing the Dealer) to convince Dealer that it is all on the up and up. In fact, the car being driven is registered to the neighborhood friend’s mom.

Nephew and friends drive with dealer to my state to pick up money that Nephew’s uncle owes – about $5,000. Nephew decides to tell the dealer to turn down a little dead end road close to an Aunt’s house. Dealer has no idea where he is. He has never been in this state before.

Dealer pulls over and begins to get out of car. He is shot twice. Once in the head, once in the throat. He dies. Nephew and Friend run the 10 minutes to Aunt’s house where they find someone to drive them back to their homes – across state borders.

Nephew is caught first and gives the Friend up as the shooter. Nephew is on parole and would go to jail forever. He cuts deal to give testimony about Friend.

The case itself is sad. These are 20 to 25 year olds. The Dealer has a six-year-old daughter, whose mother was 14 when she had her. They are young men who have grown up in very rough neighborhoods. They are all Black or Hispanic. They are no strangers to drugs, jail, police and death.

It wasn’t the case that affected me. It was the jurors.

America, if this is what goes on behind the closed doors of a jury, I suggest you all be very afraid. It started small. A comment here and there. Then one juror found out that my husband was black. That is when it came crashing down. She began to tell me that I had no right to be on this jury, that I had a “thing” for the defendant. I announced early on that my decision was made. I had heard the evidence and I could not find this young man guilty of first-degree murder. Choosing shitty friends? Living in a neighborhood where the only economic opportunity was drugs? Yes and Yes. Killing a man with no fingerprints, no forensic evidence, nothing except the word of someone who had much more to lose if he was charged with the crime? The word of someone who gained financially by keeping the drug profits in his family?

Sorry. Not me. Can’t do it. The jury split six to six. The days wore on. This woman badgered and yelled at the other jurors until one by one, they began to change their votes. At one junction she yelled, “A man is Dead – SOMEONE must be made to pay for this crime!” like she was Perry Mason. She would rail about “these people” bringing drugs into “our” neighborhood. Yep. Watch out for the Niggers and Spics, cause they’re a-comin with the drugs! Lock up your white ladies! We already got a race traitor here in the jury room! The black penis has already beguiled her and we all know that once you go black, you never go back!

It was amazing. Seven days I suffered through this. The Foreman and I were the final lone holdouts. There were offers of bargaining if we would change our votes. I would come home at night and cry. The temptation to change my vote to get away from these horrid people was nearly overwhelming.

It’s just not in my fundamental nature to turn away from the fight. I stood fast. The jury hung. They re-tried him in six months. That jury hung too.

The decision between what is right and what is easy is not always that dramatic. It is tempting to think that every choice is the final showdown between good and evil, but that isn’t how it all works. Recently, it has been quieter moments when I have seen things that were unacceptable to my internal code. That has caused my struggle. You’ll not be surprised to know that I came down on the side of what is right.

There will be ramifications if my role in the unfolding drama is discovered. That is less important to me than doing what’s right. I resist because it is in my DNA to do so. I speak for children. I face down the bullies.

25 Baleful Regards:

Anonymous said...

Holy shit.

And you're right, I think after hearing this, I DON'T want a trial, so I guess I'll have to keep my nose clean (heh - and I say "heh" in light of my recent story about E. and her use of a substance).

How you tolerated that for a week and not crack, I believe that one of the most awesome things I've heard in quite awhile. It makes me not lose all faith in humanity.

Sugarmama said...

This is a chilling story, just because I can totally imagine how hard it must have been not to just give up and get the hell out of that jury situation. It's amazing how one charismatic or opinionated person can often get things to go their way with sheer perseverance and bullheadedness, despite others' better judgment. Those people piss me off a lot, but I suppose it can work both ways, too. Like with you.

Anonymous said...

I'd certainly would want you on my side. Well done, Dawn. (And keep it up in your current situation.)

People like that badgering woman make me want to do the opposite, regardless of right or wrong. I'm blindly contrarian that way.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's "I certainly..." Damn itchy posting finger.

Anonymous said...

I totally admire your strength. I hope you realize how unusual and admirable your actions are -- so many people would bend to pressure to end the trial, or to make the others in the room happy by changing their vote. I know you have the ability to stand fast in any challenge presented to you, if it's a matter of right or wrong. Hang in there.

And also? If that woman had a problem with you being on the jury, she should have looked at herself. She obviously had preconceived notions about drug crimes. That really scares me about our criminal justice system -- freaks like that out to manipulate it.

Anonymous said...

Dawn ~

This is a great piece ~ and quite frankly, I'm not surprised at the comments and behaviors. While I feel as though my generation (born in the early to late 70s) has a bit more insight into racial issues, I know a lot of babyboomers (in my experience) are extremely BACKWARDS and well, freely make racist comments.

The negative stereotypes are perpetuated through the media and it seems like there is no one saying anything (at least loudly enough) that it needs to stop - the ghetto fabulous, white trash, and upper white snob personas still reign freely in our country.

We still accept it - and while we say we hate it, what have we really done to change anything - and I'm talking about all the above personas.

Anonymous said...

What a story. Of course I am not surprised you stood up for what you believed in and that you did it in the right way, without badgering, or using divisionist language like the other woman on the jury.
I'm also not surprised by your juror experience. Because most Americans do not seem to have a firm grasp on our justice system, I've always wondered how anyone gets a fair trial by jury when the system is fundamentally flawed.
Strong, educated conviction and the courage to hold onto it under any circumstances, those are real gifts.

mamatulip said...

I'm not surprised that you didn't crack. I'm not surprised to hear you say you will fight for what you feel is right, that you'll stand up to bullies and stick to your guns. And sadly, I'm not surprised that there are people out there who thrive so heartily on being the bullies.

You are an amazing writer. Wild horses couldn't have dragged me away from this desk until I had finished reading this.

Anonymous said...

Who knows if by your actions, you played a part in saving that young man's life.

I'm proud of you for having the courage of your convictions (or acquittals, as the case may be).

All you can do is fight the good fight, and you have and you are.

Jess Riley said...

Dawn, you are my new hero. Thank you for telling this story.

Anonymous said...

Dawn, you're an Atticus Finch-- lawyer or no.

I'm sensing that this story ties into current events in your life-- a swirl of mystery there?

I'm waiting with bated breath to see where this leads.

Lisa said...

My hubby was a juror in a trial. He feels the same way you did. The defendant was a high school teacher who had flirted with girls, had sexual relations with a few of them and held parties at his house.

He was white, clean cut and wore a cross on his lapel. He kept this doe-eyed, gee shucks look on his face the entire trial.

Teen girls had to testify in front of all of these adults and their parents about what this guy did sexually to them.

Many of the jurors didn't beleive the girls. There was even IM messages printed out. A black woman made a comment about "these little sluts took advantage" and so forth. Women and men alike tended to not beleive these girls.

My hubby was the only one who didn't sway. He's like you... The jury was hung. Turns out, this was the man's second hung jury trial.

He eventually pleaded guilty....

Kristi said...

Good for you. Standing up for yourself and your beliefs, no matter the pressure.

Diana said...

I will reiterate what everyone else has said- I'm glad you stood up for what you believe in.
I do wonder-if the kid on trial had been white would she have felt the same?
In situations like this people should really take out details like race and look at the big picture.
Makes me sick what our "justice" system is like.

Anonymous said...

Dawn, this is a great post.

Good for you for holding your ground.

I would love to think this is an isolated incident, but, having seen first hand what a jury pool is made of, I would have to agree with you that we should be very, very afraid.

IzzyMom said...

Great post. I can't back down from evil shit like that and I won't do the wrong thing just because it's easy. That said, I would have done the same as you. You are a credit to human beings everywhere :-)

Bobita said...


I am sooo curious to know your current situation...and the stand that you took.


MrsFortune said...

How interesting! I can imagine I would have been MUCH less courageous in your position ... but each year I read the play "12 Angry Men" with my students and I've never quite thought about how REAL it could be! I think that line "someone must be made to pay" is actually IN that play.

Anonymous said...

I spent a month on jury duty in 2001 while pregnant with my first. I felt the same way, like I have a real responsibility here. Mine was bog corporation knows about asbestos in the paper mill and old man ends up with 10 different kinds of cancers. We all agreed that the big company was guilty but when it came time to award him the mony, everyone was really stingy because he was old and sick and wouldn't be aorund long enough to spend it. We decided that we would average everyone's dollar amount, so I shot for $2 million and he ended up with about $1 million because I totally overshot it.

Do I feel bad? No way.

All you have in this world is your conviction. If you don't abide by that, you are in sad sad shape.

Mignon said...

You and your story are inspiring. I try to do the right thing, but my battles are more trivial. I hope, if faced with something of great importance, I would act as you did.

Jenny said...

Thanks for inspiring me to write tomorrow's post.

halloweenlover said...

Wow, Dawn, what an amazing story. It is precisely for these reasons that I am against the death penalty, and if only more people would have experiences like yours, I think they'd understand what terrible mistakes, racism, prejudice, go on behind those jury doors. It is terrifying.

In law school we heard countless stories about juries convicting or not convicting based on racial or economic bias. It is horrific. Makes you lose faith in the world.

Good for you, you really are an awesome person.

Mommygoth said...

I hate to misattribute, so I'll say that I "think" it was Dennis Miller who said that the only way you could become a juror in this country is to prove that you know absolutely nothing. Obviously that's not true, but it IS true that jury selection can hardly be considered the creation of a representative sample. Good attorneys will carefully weed out of the jury pool the majority of people who might actually be able to construct an intelligent opinion in the hopes that they will be able to confuse the jury into the decision they want. Ugly, and a travesty of what a jury of your peers is intended to be.

Julie Marsh said...

An excellent example of why I oppose the war on drugs. Dawn, you are an inspiration. I'm thankful that there are people like you who are willing to accept the responsibility of jury duty, let alone put your heart and soul and MIND into the task.

Anonymous said...

I think you absolutely did the right thing by following your conscience instead of the pressure to reach consensus. I can't believe that woman made those sorts of insinuations; it's appalling that people could let their prejudices overrule their sense of judgment in a jury situation.

I've been in the minority on a hung jury too. We were asked to decide whether or not a convicted child molestor, who'd already served his sentence but was subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital under a mandatory law, was to be let free or not. The question was, "Did we feel beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, if freed, was likely to reoffend?" A panel of 6 psychiatrists split on the question, so it went to jury trial. I was certain going in that I'd decide the guy should rot. Yet it turned out there were circumstances which did raise reasonable doubt. Half the jurors agreed initially, until a couple of others layed into us with disgust that we could EVER assent to letting a pervert loose under ANY circumstance. We weren't there to reconvict him, though; only to say whether we were certain he was likely to do it again if set free. In the end, I was one of 3 "no" votes who held out, and we hung. It was agonizing, but in the end I had to answer honestly the question the law asked. (The next jury did, in fact, decide to let him out.)

Definitely an unparalled learning experience.

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